James Ponzio didn’t get the result he wanted in the Central Coast Section Cross Country Championships at the famed Crystal Springs Course in Belmont on Nov. 12.
So, two weeks later in the biggest race of his career in the CIF State Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno, Ponzio, a Hollister resident, came up clutch in delivering the best performance of his running career. The Monte Vista Christian senior finished the 5k course (3.1 miles) in 15 minutes, 39.8 seconds (5:02 mile pace), good for eighth place in the Division V boys race.
Even more impressive: Ponzio had the ninth fastest time out of all the CCS runners who competed at State, a dramatic turnaround after he had the 24th fastest time overall in the CCS Championships. A couple of minutes after he crossed the finish line in the State Championships, Ponzio shared the moment with his parents, Leonard and Lisa.
“My mom and dad are at every race, so I usually go to them first,” he said. “I tell them how I felt because they know how I process things. I was definitely excited because I knew I had medaled so I was over the moon excited outwardly.”
It was a tremendous result given Ponzio’s pre-race ranking.
“Going into State I wasn’t even in the top 10, so I went into it with no expectation,” he said. “I just wanted to run my best and it paid off.”
Did it ever. Unlike at Crystal Springs where he expended too much energy in the opening mile, Ponzio took things out conservatively at Woodward Park. He was in 12th place at the one-mile mark and 14th at the 2.1-mile mark before finishing with a strong final mile to take eighth in the Division V race.
State actually turned out to be Ponzio’s penultimate race of his prep cross country career, not his last. A week after State, Ponzio was in Alabama to race in the Garmin Running Lane National Championships on Dec. 3. He finished 15th in 16 minutes flat over the 5k course at John Hunt Park in Huntsville.
Ponzio selected Garmin Running Lane because it’s a fast course. However, conditions were muddy due to rain leading up to the event which made for slower than usual times.
“What I wanted out of the Garmin race was a fast time. I didn’t get it but I did get a top 15 medal and (New Balance) backpack,” he said. “I’m proud to have one of those and I’m happy my parents were willing to fly me out to Alabama. It really was worth it.”
One of the keys to Ponzio’s success is never putting a limit on himself.
“I’ve been working very hard since I was a freshman and tried to make sure I never put a ceiling on myself to see how far I can go in the sport,” he said. “I definitely brought it at State and Nationals and was very pleased with my performances.”
Ponzio thanked his teammates and MVC coach Michael Lanham for supporting and helping him reach his goals. Ponzio also credited his private coach, former Hollister cross country coach Jess Morales, for training him to peak performance.
“He pushed me hard and helped me with the mental side of the sport,” Ponzio said. “I’m really fortunate to have him as my coach.”
The story of how the two met is rather appropriate. Ponzio was on a training run in early June when he ran by Morales’ house in Hollister. They struck up a conversation and exchanged contact information, but it wasn’t until two months later when Ponzio reached out to Morales and invited him to come watch him compete in the first race of the season, the MVC Invitational on Sept. 9.
Ponzio then asked Morales to coach him independently and the two hit it off immediately.
“He’s done a lot for me,” Ponzio said. “I went on all of his workout runs with his other athletes and I’ll keep meeting with him this winter getting ready for spring [track season].”
Ponzio didn’t start competing until he was in the eighth grade. As a freshman, Ponzio was the fourth fastest runner on the team, and it whetted his appetite to improve.
“It opened my brain to the realization that I could be really good at the sport if I put in the work,” he said. “That summer during Covid and that winter I was out running everyday. It was a nice way to get outside and exercise the brain after a long day of online school.”
Running has given Ponzio joy beyond all measure.
“I enjoy its difficulty, how it’s a test of how far or how fast I can go,” he said. “It’s also a huge test of the mind. That’s something I’ve really grown in, is experiencing the mental state of being an athlete. So, that is where I think I’ve gotten the most joy out of the sport so far.”